Canucks Prospect Rathbone Is Ready for Prime Time

The Vancouver Canucks just witnessed greatness with Quinn Hughes, now they have Jack Rathbone to look forward to as well. Ever since he was drafted down in the fourth round in 2017, he has risen up the prospect rankings and into the top five with the likes of Vasili Podkolzin and Nils Hoglander who were first and second-round picks respectively. In fact, he probably should be considered the organization’s top defensive prospect right now. That’s quite the compliment for the young man from West Roxbury. So with all that said, let’s take a look at the journey that has him on the cusp of becoming another prospect to make his debut in Canucks colours.

Rathbone’s Time at Dexter Southfield School

Rathbone took a very interesting path during his draft and draft plus-one years. Unlike many players who decide on the college route, he only played four games at the USHL level, while most play at least a couple of seasons there. Instead, he finished his third and fourth years at Dexter Southfield high school before enrolling at the prestigious Harvard University.

Rathbone’s reasoning was sound though, as he wanted to be close to his autistic brother who was eight-years-old at the time. He didn’t want to be away from him for an extended period of time, so he decided to forgo USHL hockey and stay close to home. As we will see later, missing time in the USHL didn’t seem to matter too much in terms of his overall development though.

Rathbone also played 72 games with the Cape Cod Whalers during his high school years (THW Archives)

Rathbone’s four seasons at the high school level were very successful as he racked up 41 goals and 98 points in 99 games. He also held the captaincy for two of his four seasons there, which speaks to his leadership and character. The fact that he got into Harvard shows that he possesses a very cerebral game as well.

Rathbone Excelled in the NCAA With the Harvard Crimson

After spending his draft plus-one season at the high school level, Rathbone began his college career at Harvard University where he majored in psychology. Fun fact, Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko who played for Boston College in the NCAA also majored in that same discipline, maybe they can share notes? But I digress. Before too long, the Canucks will boast two very smart players in their dressing room.

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Rathbone made an immediate impression in his freshman season at Harvard, scoring 7 goals and 22 points in 33 games. After flying under the radar for a couple of seasons, he started to get noticed by the pundits on the west coast. His speed, mobility, and blast from the blueline were on display almost every night, not to mention his propensity for the stretch pass. I can’t tell you how many times I was in awe of his ability to pass the puck from his own blueline to a player streaking up the middle of the ice. Not only that, but he also showed no fear in carrying the puck through the neutral zone and into the attacking zone either.

While most freshman defencemen toil on the second and third pairings in the NCAA, Rathbone won the trust of long-time Crimson head coach Ted Donato and ended up playing on the top pairing with Calgary Flames’ third-round draft pick Adam Fox. They had tremendous chemistry as a duo and were leaned upon many times throughout the season. Unfortunately for Rathbone, he was going to lose him to the NHL the following season.

Rathbone Stepped Up His Game Without Fox

Many people wondered how Rathbone would be without the services of his star partner Fox. It was a legitimate concern especially after he put up a career season in his final go-around with the Crimson where he racked up 48 points in 33 games. With a partner like that leaving his side, that meant more pressure on him to produce and less time to make the same plays he made in his freshman season. Sounds like a perfect setup for a sophomore slump, right? Wrong.

Adam Fox New York Rangers
Adam Fox is now a key member of Rangers’ blue line (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Rathbone never took a step back, in fact, he took a massive step forward in his development. The attributes I mentioned earlier were on display even more often in his second go-around. He nearly doubled his output from his freshman season and became Harvard’s top defenceman. Donato continued to lean on him to the tune of an average of 24 minutes a night. He eclipsed the 27-minute mark multiple times and even played almost 30 minutes versus the Yale Bulldogs in mid-February. By the end of the pandemic-shortened season, he had scored 7 goals and 31 points in 33 games. I think it’s safe to say that he did not miss Fox beside him, in fact, he thrived without him.

Rathbone’s NHL Future is Bright

The hype has risen to fever heights in Vancouver as Rathbone is now considered by many experts to be the top defenceman in the Canucks prospect pipeline. A spot once held by Olli Juolevi, he has vaulted past the former fifth overall pick and could be playing in the NHL as soon as next season. To put his rise into perspective, he didn’t appear on any top-10 lists after he was drafted nor was he on the radar to become a top-four defenceman in his prime. Suffice it to say, he probably will be one of the biggest steals of the 2017 Draft.

Jack Rathbone Harvard Crimson
Jack Rathbone became one of Harvard’s go-to defencemen in 2019-20 (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

Rathbone has all the assets of a top blueliner from his skating and transition game to his hockey IQ and solid first pass, he has the very real potential to become a solid two-way defenceman that can put up 40-50 points in his prime. He does still need to bulk up and grow into his frame, but once he does, he should be able to hold his own in the defensive zone. If he’s paired with a defenceman similar to Chris Tanev, he should be a force in every zone on the ice.

Will Rathbone Sign With the Canucks?

The biggest question on everyone’s mind right now is whether Rathbone will ultimately sign with the Canucks. By all accounts, it seems like general manager Jim Benning has a good relationship with him, so I don’t think he will be following Fox into unrestricted free agent (UFA) territory. However, until he puts pen to paper, the fear of that happening will continue to exist. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he understandably wanted to postpone contract talks until everything settled down. Though now that Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League schools have chosen to postpone their hockey programs to January at the earliest, that decision has obviously come back to the forefront.

Now that the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) has been ratified by the owners and the players, starting July 13, the Canucks will have three days to sign Rathbone to an entry-level contract that includes the 2019-20 season. If he doesn’t sign in that window, he will have to wait until the end of next season to potentially turn pro with the Canucks or opt for free agency and sign with another franchise.

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With all the uncertainty surrounding Harvard and its athletics, I think there’s a strong possibility that Rathbone signs in the coming days. If that ends up not happening, Canucks Nation should be hitting the panic button, as he probably has doubts about the team’s future. Then there’s a real possibility that he will decide to enter the UFA market next season. If that ends up being the case, the Canucks probably should look to trade him rather than risk losing him for nothing.

The Canucks Need Rathbone

The Canucks cannot afford to let Rathbone go quietly into the night. With the way hockey is played right now, they need a defenceman like him on the blueline. Apart from the talent that is Hughes, they do not have anyone else that can play the game like him. Now I am not saying that Rathbone is at the same level, but he has the mobility, smarts, and offensive potential that is required to succeed in the league right now.

Quinn Hughes Vancouver Canucks
Can Jack Rathbone join Quinn Hughes in the transformation of the Canucks’ back end? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With all the skilled forwards the Canucks have on their team and in the pipeline, they need defencemen that can transition the puck cleanly out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone with ease. They also need to get the puck to those forwards, so that the talent and speed of those players are not wasted. In the end, Rathbone has too much potential to let him walk away for nothing. The first item on Benning’s to-do list should be to sign him and complete his journey to the Canucks’ defence core.

All stats were taken from Elite Prospects and InStat Hockey